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The Essence Of Han- Understanding the Korean Psyche

Just after the United States began the invasion of Afghanistan I wrote an essay describing the history of conflict there and the reality of the socio-political structure of Tribal peoples as opposed to nationalistic entities in establishing peace. Today, sixteen years later, the reservations I had then about our military success there have been borne out and we are no closer to helping the different groups there find harmony and self-government than we were right after the Two Towers collapsed. I attribute this failure as much to the general Western disinterest and misunderstanding of Tribal values and world-view than to any military weakness or lack of applied resources.
What we are now facing in North Korea is a similar crisis. While having another armed nuclear power in the world is definitely destabilizing and scary, for a person who lived through the sixties hiding under a school desk practicing for Nuclear War the really scary part is that West is making no more of an attempt to understand the motives and mindset of the North Korean’s than we did the Afghan Tribes prior to starting our Nation’s longest, and seemingly unending, war.
In order to understand North Koreans you must keep three things at the forefront of any consideration. One– The Japanese ruled the country in their own despotic fashion from 1910 thru 1945 and are almost as universally hated in Korea as they are in China. Two– Kim ll Sung was a guerrilla leader against the Japanese prior to the end of the war and the government has subsequently been controlled by the personality-driven iron hand of Kim ll Sung, his son and grandson for almost 73 years. The people have known no other leadership for almost three generations. Three—the concept of Han dominates the psyche of Koreans in general across the world, including the U.S.
The internet defines “Han” as a “collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds.” It is “infused with aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.” Writer Anthony Bourdain describes it as “a burning sense of injustice, besiegement, and desire for revenge.”
Current journalists, in their questioning of average Koreans, find an almost fatalistic response in their view of where the current crisis is going. Since their government is preparing them for nuclear war, the concept of Han is forming their attitudes about the “survivability” of such a conflict. One response was that “at least a few thousand would survive.” So despite the loss of 25 million of its citizens, under the weight of Han, North Korea would consider it a victory if only a few thousand people survived the conflict! This is in keeping with their current belief that they defeated the U.S. In the Korean War.
The current president and our leaders need to take “Han” under consideration in their decision-making. We are discussing the virtual extermination of a people and countless casualties in South Korea and Japan. They, the South Koreans and Japanese, stand to lose the most in any conflict. The final decision should be theirs.

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James BlueWolf

2 comments to The Essence Of Han- Understanding the Korean Psyche

  • “In order to understand North Koreans” (or anything else, for that matter), we must WANT to. I question whether most people even want to, either because they can’t be bothered to go to the trouble, or they’ve been brainwashed to believe what others want them to believe and they don’t (and probably never will) know any better.

    As far as North Korea is concerned, China is apparently the only power with the ability to POTENTIALLY bring (short of war) North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in place. So it seems even more important to try to understand CHINA and appreciate the reasons why they have been reluctant to put the squeeze on North Korea to the degree necessary to force a resolution.

    Trump said in his speech to the United Nations that every country should put its own interests first. If he really believes that, he will work with China to explore if it is indeed in their best interests to act. The U.S. may think it’s in China’s best interest, but it’s not enough for the U.S. to think so. It’s time for the deal-maker (Trump) to deal.

  • markscheel1

    Well, if the U.S. actually does start popping big ones on NK, then China will have to deal with the consequences of nuclear fallout for decades to come, They’d better factor that into their “self-interests.” Not to mention the economic damage to their country and the likely hordes of refugees flooding in. China better deal wisely too!

    Yes, America is notorious for not understanding the history and culture of nations they become enmeshed in. Check out the excellent Vietnam PBS series showing now. So sad!


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